As I write this blog, on boxing day, having just tucked into a lovely plate of bubble and squeak, I find myself thinking of my good friend Hildegarde. She's currently finishing her shift at a Crisis Xmas shelter for homeless women. She works over the Xmas period every year. Inspired by her example, I decided to try and do my bit this year.
On Thursday, my alarm went off at 6am. I had a shower, a cup of green tea and a banana, and trotted down to Mill Hill Broadway to catch the 6.34 to St Pancras. I picked up another cup of tea and a copy of Private Eye, to read on the way in. At St Pancras, I transferred to the Victoria line and made my way to Victoria Station. Here I walked around the corner to the The Passage, arriving at ten past seven. The Passage is a day centre for Homeless people. I'd volunteered to do a morning shift, 7.30 to 10 am. A few quick introductions and then we started making preparations. I was told that I was on toast duty. The system is simple. The Passage receives food that has reached it's sell by date from a number of retailers such as Marks & Spencers and Pret a Manger. This is available for free to the people who attend the passage. They can also have two slices of toast and a drink. There is a fried breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, beans, sausage, bacon and mushrooms. These must be paid for. Each item is ten or fifteen pence. If the people genuinely have no cash at all, they can obtian a voucher to pay.
At 8am, the doors open and the people who use the centre start rolling in. I start my toast production line, which runs for the best part of two hours. I guess that for many people, the only homeless people we notice are the Big Issue sellers. We had a couple of them in for breakfast. People collect their breakfast and make their way a seated area where they can get a bit of relief from the cold and relaxation. Many of the people are eastern europeans, with a smattering of English. I try and greet everyone I can with a cheerful "Good morning" and ask them how much toast and whether they want it buttered. Some nod, some just hold up fingers, some have a little chat. A couple explain how they found themselves in this predicament. A couple had similar stories, coming over from Poland and finding the work in the building trade has dried up.
One guy, an Afro-Carribean Londoner told me of how a medical cock up had robbed him of the use of his leg, musing on the irony that despite his chaotic lifestyle, it wasn't this that was the cause of his problems. Towards the end of the shift, a guy came in and spoke to one of the staff, saying he was moving into a flat later. The help and councilling from the centre had helped him start to get back on his feet. He said he was volunteering and he was keen to "put something back". Despite his difficulties, he was upbeat and positive. The regular helpers said it was quieter than usual, although it seemed pretty busy to me. Many regulars were going to shelters such as the one Hildegarde is at.
The vast majority of the people using the centre were male, I discussed this with Emma, the volunteer coordinator. It seems that when relationships fail, men are usually the ones to move out. If there are children involved, the local authority has a legal responsibility to house the woman and children.
At 9.30am, the breakfast closes down. The toaster gets turned off and any remaining breakfast items are given out free. The regulars who know the system will have waited for this moment and take the chance to tuck in. A quick walk around the day centre during the session, showed the great facilities, geared to helping people find their feet. The majority of the people I'd served breakfast to were now sat around trying to catch some sleep in the warm. I was perhaps surprised how quiet they all were. Just sitting staring in many cases.
The last half hour was spent washing down surfaces and tables. Then I was off home. I had one of those moments of great clarity, we all sometimes get. On the train, I pondered that many of the people I'd met were probably younger than me. I'm fourty nine. I got home and googled the life expectancy of the Homeless in the UK and found this - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16272120 - the life expectancy for them is 47 - 30 years younger than the national average of 77. Regular readers of this blog will know I've been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer (with no symptoms at all), I'll probably outlive them all. I've already lived two years longer than the expectation of those I'd just buttered the toast for. It was a wake up call. Maybe I should count my blessings, rather than bemoan my ill fortune.
I hope you all had a happy and healthy Christmas